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EduLege Tracker 11-27-17

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EduLege Update Volume V, Number 81
November 27, 2017
By Andy Welch
A Service of the Texas School Public Relations Association

What to do?

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath says that public schools could lose virtually all of their federal funding—about $6 billion last year—if the state cancels standardized student testing in response to the widespread and long-term disruption caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Many school administrators and public school advocates have argued that the tests shouldn't be administered, because students are more likely to perform poorly after missing class time and suffering trauma due to the hurricane and subsequent flooding. A change.org petition asking that the state cancel the tests next year has collected about 240,000 signatures.

But Commissioner Morath says that unless the state secures a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, skipping the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests next spring would place Texas in violation of federal law. That would threaten federal revenue, which accounts for about 10 percent of the state's funding for public schools.

"We don't think a waiver could be or would be granted," Commissioner Morath said. "There's no precedent for that in federal history.”

If STAAR is administered, two major questions remain: Will the Texas Education Agency change the date of the exams?  And how will school districts be graded—and in some cases, punished—if students score poorly?

Commissioner Morath says that even postponing administration of the STAAR tests, until later in the spring, is not a viable option.

Several members of the House Pubic Education Committee believe that schools and districts affected by the hurricane should receive grades of "Not Rated." In 2009, following Hurricane Ike, state officials gave storm-affected districts a "Not Rated" grade if they performed worse than the prior year or were deemed "Academically Unacceptable."

Because of a new state law, districts will start receiving A-F letter grades in 2018, based on various performance factors, including student scores on the STAAR. Campuses will start receiving their letter grades in 2019.

Aldine superintendent Wanda Bamberg recommended issuing a "Not Rated" grade to storm-affected districts. She said her district's homeless student population has more than doubled—from about 500 last year to 1,146 after Hurricane Harvey—and nearly 300 instructional staff members "lost everything" in the flooding.

"Taking the test is not the issue. It's what we do with (the results)," Superintendent Bamberg said.

Educating homeless students: a bright spot…

The needs of homeless and runaway youth are not being adequately addressed in Texas, according to a recent study by two advocacy groups.

The study, conducted by Texas Appleseed and Texas Network of Youth Service, which focus on social justice and children's rights, examined the root causes of youth homelessness and the myriad negative consequences that flow from it.

Many homeless or runaway youth in Texas have fled foster care placements or abusive home environments or were kicked out by parents, often for being gay or lesbian, the study's authors said. Once homeless, these youth are at increased risk for a range of bad consequences—dropping out of school, entering the criminal justice system, falling prey to addiction and sex trafficking and struggling with mental illness.

The study also found that nearly 6,500 children and teens were apprehended in 2015 in Texas for running away, with blacks and Hispanics overrepresented among those referred to detention.

Overall, more than 16,000 youths in 1,200 Texas public school districts were identified as unaccompanied homeless, the most recent data shows. Combined with accompanied youth, the number of homeless youth grows to more than 113,000 in Texas public schools in 2014-2015, a 12 percent increase over the previous school year.

In a way, this was a "bright spot" in the study, said Deborah Fowler with Texas Appleseed.

"This shows many runaways are still in school, which means Texas has a real opportunity to better intervene and provide services, not only with kids who are already homeless but in how to prevent youth homelessness in the first place," she said.

A big problem in tackling youth homelessness is a lack of funding.

Nationally, most funds dedicated to homeless services comes from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which has largely focused on military veterans, but not youth.

"One of the most startling things we found was that no state funding focuses specifically on serving homeless youth," she said.

That was quick…

The Texas Education Agency has fired its new Special Education director after learning that she had been accused in a lawsuit of trying to prevent others from reporting the alleged sexual abuse of a student at an Oregon school district where she previously worked.

Laurie Kash started with TEA on Aug. 15. At the time, a pending lawsuit accused her of ordering several employees to say nothing about the sexual abuse allegations while she was Special Education director at the Rainier School District, about 40 miles north of Portland.

“These allegations were not disclosed during the hiring process, and if these serious allegations had been disclosed, she would not have been hired," TEA said in a statement.

The agency added that, "Dr. Kash has no business being in charge of Special Education policy and programming in Texas."

Dr. Kash's attorney, Bill Aleshire, told the Austin American-Statesman that his client mentioned the lawsuit's allegations in her interview for the job with TEA. He said three Oregon state agencies investigated the allegations and found them to be without merit.

Mr. Aleshire also told the American-Statesman that he believed Dr. Kash was fired because she had filed a federal complaint against TEA. She was fired the day after she complained to the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that TEA wrongly agreed to a no-bid $4.4 million contract with a Georgia company to analyze private records for children with disabilities.

Dr. Kash was not made aware of her dismissal until contacted by an American-Statesman reporter.

"This is how TEA treats a whistleblower, plain and simple," attorney Aleshire said.

What’s important. What’s not…

According to the state’s top business lobby group, Texas legislators spent too much time this year debating bathrooms and immigration, and took their eyes off some matters vital to economic growth, such as phasing out the business-franchise tax and easing highway congestion.

In releasing its scorecard that rated each state legislator, based upon selected votes, Texas Association of Business chief executive Jeff Moseley said his group was pleased to help block a bill that would require transgender Texas students to use restrooms that match their gender at birth. TAB also maintained that legislators went too far in adding a "show me your papers" provision to the new state law that bans so-called sanctuary city policies.

Mr. Moseley said the business group would have preferred that legislators pay more attention to things that could spur the Texas economy, such as repealing the state franchise or "margins tax," and continuing the use of agreements under which private firms build toll roads.

“We were very successful in making sure that a lot of bad ideas didn’t make it to the House floor,” he said. “A lot of those issues that we thought were unnecessary, that were a distraction, those didn’t make it forward to the floor.”

The group's scorecard examined votes on 17 House bills and 15 Senate bills. Only one of the 181 lawmakers voted completely in line with the association, earning a 100 percent rating—House Appropriations Committee Vice Chairman Oscar Longoria, D-Mission.

In each chamber, the business lobby gave its lowest scores to Republicans with Tea Party backing—State Senator Konni Burton of Colleyville, whose score was 53 percent, and Representative Jonathan Stickland of Bedford, who voted with the business association on just 41 percent of the lobby group’s key issues.

Sooner than expected…

Kingwood High School, which has been closed because of flood damage from Hurricane Harvey and whose students have been attending classes at a rival Humble campus, will tentatively re-open on March 19.

Kingwood suffered extensive damage during the storm in late August, when more than 40 inches of rain fell across the Houston metropolitan area.

Since the storm, Kingwood High students have been sharing Summer Creek High School with that school's students. Summer Creek High uses the school in the morning hours, while Kingwood High uses the campus for afternoon classes.

The Humble school district had initially expected Kingwood to remain closed for the entire academic year for repairs, which are estimated to cost between $35 million and $40 million. The extent to which the damage will be paid by district insurance, the federal government or state funds is still very much up in the air.

You could have owned an opera house…

Austin school officials are moving forward with the high-profile sale of the district headquarters, as well as the Millett Opera House a few blocks from the State Capitol, which houses the exclusive Austin Club.

The Austin school board is scheduled to finalize the sale of the following properties:

• The Carruth Administration Center, the 2.7-acre district headquarters on West 6th Street—where property values are booming—for $36.5 million to a private developer. The minimum bid was $30 million.

• The Millett Opera House in downtown Austin, for $3 million to the Foundation for the Preservation of the Historic Millett Opera House, which was the only bidder on the property.

• The Baker Center, a former school located in the tony Hyde Park area, for $10.6 million to Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Alamo Drafthouse says it plans to include single-family residences on the property, with 25 percent of them earmarked as “affordable housing units,” with priority given to district employees and families with children who attend Austin schools. A real estate developer has sued the district for awarding the sale to Alamo Drafthouse, saying its offer was significantly lower than his bid for the property. That lawsuit is still pending, as the school board proceeds to finalize the deal with Alamo Drafthouse.

There’s always Gas Monkey Garage…

The Grand Prairie school district says that the restoration of a classic car belonging to Superintendent Susan Simpson Hull is the result of routine work by a gifted group of auto-tech students, and is not a sweetheart insider deal.

Students at Dubiski Career High School took a junked 1972 El Camino belonging to Superintendent Hull, and after months of extensive work, restored it to pristine, “museum-quality” condition.

Most of the uproar stems from labor costs that the superintendent didn't have to pay, which could range as high as "$75,000 to maybe $100,000," much more than the restored car's net worth, Tim Tiley of Texas Classic Cars told KTVT-Television in Dallas.

However, it’s not unusual for students to work on teachers' or staff members' vehicles as part of their classwork in auto shop programs, although some may not have the resources to do the work the Dubiski students can do, Grand Prairie spokesman Sam Buchmeyer said.

The students' services are open to any Grand Prairie resident, under certain conditions, including the possibility of longer-than-normal repair times.

"They don't run a regular auto repair shop, so when cars are contributed to the program, there are some understandings that the car is going to be with us for a significant amount of time," Mr. Buchmeyer said.

EduLege is provided by the Texas School Public Relations Association as a service to its members.

Long-time TSPRA member Andy Welch, the retired Communication Director for the Austin School District, compiles and writes EduLege.  Questions or comments may be directed to him at andywelch1@gmail.com.

For more updates on education news from throughout the state, visit the TSPRA website.